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Movement Directing in Virtual Spaces

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

MDA Steering Group member Anna Morrissey on new movement directing environments

Well it’s an honour and a bit daunting to be writing the first blog for the MDA. We are in such a unique and particular time that I came to this without knowing exactly what to write about. Was I even movement directing enough right now to write about movement directing? Like many others all my work for this year was either cancelled, postponed or paused only to be later cancelled. After plans for 2020 evaporated and lock down eased green shoots finally appeared and through the mist a movement direction gig emerged when I was asked to work on a Virtual Reality (VR) opera.

The opera had been in development for some time and predates Covid-19. However, it was new to me and my first meeting with the piece was only a couple of weeks before rehearsing and filming the work. I’ve never worked in VR and I first put on a VR headset as part of my research for this job. I’ll freely admit that I am not a gamer. I don’t tend towards computer games or tech. I generally prefer life in all its fleshy reality but I was excited to think about a new form and how audiences would actually experience an opera in VR. This is a sharing of process and journey.

First Meeting: Director and Designer on Zoom

I’d already had the pre-viz sent to me, a short video which had the designer’s mood boards and sketched designs running alongside the music. In our first Zoom meeting the director and designer talked me through the piece and what was needed from the movement and choreography.

Words and phrases from my notebook

/Dramatic Poem / Soundscape in the City / 3-D sound world / Human wire forms / Gormely- esque / Shadows / shadows can dissolve into water/ / Isolation / over-population / solitary / /Aggression / punch / urgency / business / intimidating / /Gestures on loop / multiplication / multiple voices /

The brief became quite clear and discreet - I needed to create a solo choreography for a ‘Shadow Figure’ that responded to the music and the themes of the piece, and I needed to offer work in a way that would allow flexibility in the film editing process. The ‘Shadow Figure’ inhabits the cityscape and is conceived as a an androgynous ‘Every Person’. It is disconnected from its surroundings, concerned only with itself with an intention to get ahead at all costs.

Pre-rehearsal process

As a matter of priority I had to actually experience what VR felt like. I found it really hard to imagine my way into the piece without having an embodied experience of how the audience would be receiving the piece. One of my oldest friend is a self-identifying ‘tech nerd’ and I was able to get the headset on and have a play.

As I had never worked with the director before I wanted us to be able to share a language around movement and so I went looking for visual points of references. The rehearsal and filming processes were going to be short - a day to rehearse and a day for shooting - so I felt very aware of establishing the right pitch and tone as I would not have a huge amount of time to explore in the rehearsal room. I particularly wanted to interrogate ‘aggressive’ and I needed to ask more about the intentions and character of the ‘Shadow Figure’. I shared these references and asked for a catch up with the director.

Madge - So Dumb 1518 Strasburg Hold Up - Beyonce (particularly where she is swinging the baseball bat in a yellow dress)

Second Meeting with Director - On the phone

She had watched my references and what she identified as useful was the latent aggression and energy each had in them. A lot had become clearer to both of us since our first meeting and my notes had moved on from individual words to phrases and metaphor

/survival of the fittest/ pull the ladder up/ look after number one / don’t get anywhere unless we connect / every man for himself / trapped in robotic cycles /

The arc of the choreography also emerged in our conversation. It would move in three parts: a) mundane/quotidian task-based movement b) Aggression and glitching movement as pressures mount c) Meltdown / disfunction / falling.

We dug into the technical craft of choreographing on green screen. The ‘Shadow Figure’ is essentially a silhouette and so I needed to think in 2-D. The dimensions of the green screen were 4m wide, 2.5m deep and 2.5m tall. It was important that the whole body was always in the frame to keep continuity. I learnt that the ‘frame’ is not the same as the floor print, it’s the space in which the whole body is framed or backdropped by the green screen. So you can see that if you stand in either downstage corner your head and upper body will be have the white wall as its back drop. And jumps need to be low to keep the head in frame. In effect the playing space becomes smaller.

I had simultaneously been reading ‘Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency’ by Olivia Lang. I highly recommend it to everyone. Its foreword alone is worth the read and is a wonderful testimony to the power of and the need for art. “We are so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequities, and it offers other ways of living. Don’t you want it, to be impregnate with all that light? And what will happen if you are?”

This foreword and the above quote are not directly related to this VR opera, however, for (re)motivating me in the belief that making is important it was exactly what I needed to read. More directly, it was her chapter on Agnes Martin that struck me as I had the VR opera and its small frame green screen rattling around my brain.

Agnes Martin is perhaps most famous for her grid paintings. Her rows of tiny boxes struck me as useful for thinking about this tiny space and how floor pattern and division of space might work.

Run up to rehearsal day

After leaving this second conversation, reading, moving and experimenting in my living room once the kids had gone to bed, I began to devise some movement material and plan the rehearsal day. Several email conversations ran parallel to this as we discovered and negotiated Covid-safe guidelines, costumes, shoes, hair, sprung floors, etc. We would have to rehearse on Zoom and I found a space that the dancer could work in alone. I would work with her on Zoom and the director would log in and out of the session to catch up with the work and gives notes and feedback.

Rehearsal Day

9-10 Warm-up 10-12 Devising and sculpting the main material according to our three part structure:

a) mundane/quotidian task based movement b) Aggression and glitching movement as pressures mount c) Meltdown / disfunction / falling 12-1 Director Zooms in 1-2 Lunch 2-3.45 Devising and sculpting continues

3.45-4 Tea Break 4 Director Zooms in 6 Call Ends

Luckily our rehearsal space had windows that back lit the dancer and that really allowed me to focus on the silhouette and not get drawn into 3-D expressions. We also worked with a mark up from the start to make sure we were being accurate in our frame.

I worked through improvisation, image and tasks in the first part of our day to get the latent aggression, tone and energy of the movement. We then worked quickly to put together a whole sequence that went through the arc of the movement journey. Inspired by Martin’s grid, I had started the movement in pedestrian walking on varying grid patterns interrupted with gestures and stops.

By the time the director joined us we had quite a lot of material and already established a working language between between myself and the dancer. There was lots of positive feedback that we could build on and her main note to me changed the direction of the rehearsals and how I was thinking about the work. The walking motif did not offer enough to the silhouette. Interesting as Martin’s grid had been to me, in this instance it was only helpful as a way in and I actually moved away from it as a way to organise the space. I shifted in the afternoon to much stronger images and patterns that were more distinct in this 2-D frame. Also, I had offered up a continuous staged journey through the arc that we had discussed. As we worked it became clear to the director and I that we needed shorter movement phrases that could be more easily manipulated in the edit.

The rest of the afternoon we devised these shorter movement phrases and we came to call them ‘stems’. Each ‘stem’ being a phrase that embodied the particular dynamic quality of our three part structure.

We gave a name to each stem. Some examples:

Expresso Shot / Square Plain / Long Glitch

The last thing to do at the end of the day was to press record on our Zoom meeting with me calling the names of each stem and the dancer performing the moves. I shared the mp4 file with the director and the film studio so that we could all share the same language.

Filming Day

The shoot day was my first live rehearsal with real bodies in real space since lockdown. We were, of course, primed with the risk assessment and protocols for working together. However, it’s interesting given the new rules of engagement and that my newness to green screen how easily everything slips into familiar rhythms and relationships.

The director and designer zoomed in to look at costume and hair, and after warm up we set about capturing the movement material. I was given the genuinely thrilling role of calling action and cut. I watched a monitor that rendered the moving image as a black silhouette on a white background. I was watching for the impact of the image in its 2-D form. Did it have the shape, tone and expression that we were looking for in each of stage of our arc? We steadily went through our list of stems, stopping to nudge anything into frame and to reset hair. By lunch we had captured everything and we were ahead of schedule so we had the luxury of using the afternoon to play with the material. We were able to create new phrases in creative conversation and collaboration with the filming team. We were so lucky to have a playful space especially given our limited time frame. We were able to develop and shape the material in the moment, bouncing off each other in creative and embodied interplay.

The most challenging part of the day was leaving the work behind and in the hands of an editor. My contract was to rehearse for a day and film for a day, but now, of course, I had all sorts of ideas and opinions about how the material could be shaped and sequenced to take it from its fragments and into its final form. It’s a strange feeling for me not to shape the final image for the audience. As a theatre animal I’m used to having a process that puts the work in front of people and then gets to see, hear and feel their responses. Having to walk away before sharing, previewing and refining is quite uncomfortable, but if 2020 is teaching me anything then maybe it’s the art of surrender.

Current Rising is playing at the Royal Opera House from 19th December 2020 to 17th January 2021


Anna Morrissey studied Archaeology and Anthropology and then went on to train in dance and then movement at Central School of Speech and Drama. She has worked as movement director and choreographer across theatre, opera and and dance and her work has been shown on the West End, the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, the Young Vic and the Old Vic as well as many major regional venues and internationally. She has worked on many large scale public artworks including the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, We Are Here (Jeremy Deller, NT) and Beyond The Deepening Shadows (Tower of London). As a choreographer Anna has been commissioned to make dance theatre pieces by the RSC, ROH and Historic Royal Palaces. Anna also spent a year as Artist in Residence with Historic Royal Palaces. She is currently under commission from Camden People’s Theatre as part of their Outside The Box season and is grateful to Arts Council England for funding a period of research and development into her own practice. Anna is the movement director and choreographer on the the Olivier Award winning production of Emilia which will be available to watch online from 10-24th November 2020. 

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